Family Matters

Something Close to Warmth

A Daughter's Search for Meaning

Jill Sammak
Magazine Issue
July/August 2021
An illustration of a woman reaching for her father as he stands looking out a window

When I was in the second grade, my class went on a field trip to visit the pharmacy my dad owned in rural New Jersey. I watched with pride as, one by one, each of my classmates climbed onto a stepstool to help him scrape tiny pellets into red and yellow capsules. On our way out, we got to choose a treat from the rack in the center aisle. I picked a Chunky candy bar.

It had been my favorite since I was a toddler. Once, I stole a handful of Chunky bars while my dad was busy helping customers. When he bent down to give me an unexpected kiss, he smelled the chocolate on my breath, which led him to a graveyard of crumpled wrappers under the card rack nearby.

My father loved that story. He often recounted it to me when I was young and we would lie in bed together watching Tom and Jerry cartoons. And since I loved it too, he’d sometimes tell it to distract me, like the time I got a splinter from the fence in our yard and he gently removed it from my tiny finger.

Our relationship began with chocolate-scented kisses, cuddles, and cartoons—but like so many stories, it became much more complicated.

I don’t know exactly when my father died. Or how. When the coroner in Beaufort County, South Carolina, called in January 2020 to break the news, he said he didn’t know, either. All he knew was that my father’s neighbors—alarmed that they hadn’t seen him for a few days—took their spare key to his front door and found his body on the floor of the guest bedroom. The coroner said he didn’t suspect foul play, and if my father’s physician would authorize the death certificate to reflect he’d died from old age and underlying health conditions, there’d be no need for an autopsy.

“My father is dead?” I asked, trying to catch up to the dizzying news.

In the dialect of a middle-aged, southern man, he replied, “Yes, ma’am.”

The room where my father’s body was found had been empty for 12 years, since his former girlfriend had moved out with her belongings, including the bed where she’d slept, apart from him. They’d lived together for two years—an arrangement he’d begun to regret not long after agreeing to it. She was the only person he’d lived with after my parents divorced in the ’70s.

My father had been diabetic since his 40s—a predictable outcome for a man who’d had a habit of eating éclairs in the middle of the night since boyhood. Following the diagnosis, he gave up desserts and started managing his diet and blood sugar with a scientist’s precision and a religious zealot’s commitment—which is probably why he lived to be 85. And while it’s not unexpected for someone to pass away at 85, not knowing what had happened only compounded my sadness and disorientation.

My brother flew to South Carolina in search of answers. He spoke to the neighbors, asked staff at the fitness center where my father worked out when they’d last seen him, and requested security camera footage from the over-55 community where he lived, to track his final outings. We listened to voicemails people had left for him. My brother played them over speakerphone while he stood in our father’s house. I listened from my apartment in Manhattan.

There were two from me, in a chirpy voice I hardly recognized—the first from two days after his estimated time of death, and another left a week later. There was one more, from the neighbors, calling as they turned the spare key in his front door. The recording revealed their real-time reaction to what they’d discovered. Mercifully, my brother cut the message short.

The investigation didn’t uncover much, and because there was no autopsy, we never learned the cause of our father’s death, or what he was doing in that empty room where he collapsed.

But my brother and I were used to mysteries when it came to our father. He was a difficult man to know. Despite the tenderness he’d shown me as a child, he was impatient and quick to anger. When he’d pull the car over to ask someone for directions, if the person didn’t answer quickly enough, he’d peel out, kicking up dust and gravel as they stood there, mouth agape.

My mother still remembers a dispute he had with a restaurant owner when the meatloaf he ordered wasn’t to his liking. My father began shouting when the owner rebuffed his critique. My mother scrambled to unstrap me from my high chair and hastily grabbed my brother’s hand as we were thrown out.

The divorce didn’t improve his disposition. It was my mother’s idea to end the marriage, and it proved to my father that no one could be trusted.

I was eight when my parents split. The therapist who saw them for couples counseling told my mother that my dad and I would have challenges as I grew into womanhood. It was his opinion that my father didn’t really like women.

After the divorce, my father discovered a passion for cooking, and he began to show his love with food. When I’d visit him, we’d make pie crusts with lattice tops, red velvet cakes, and homemade pasta. “Don’t forget to set the timer!” was a familiar refrain in his kitchen. I didn’t dare forget.

Some weekends, we’d drive to Manhattan to see Broadway shows. And on my birthday, he’d pick up elegant cakes from our favorite French bakery in Chelsea, meticulously decorated with gold-painted chocolate.

Whether that therapist was right or not, my relationship with my father became more strained as I grew older. Maybe it was because I started forming opinions of my own. Or maybe, after reaching puberty, my movements and mannerisms reminded him of my mother, and how she’d rejected him.

Most years, he called me only on my birthday, and if he wasn’t home when I reached out, he didn’t return my call—because, he said, he “didn’t want to bother me.”

There weren’t many things I could say that interested him anyway, so when we did speak, I mostly listened. He talked about conspiracy theories, government corruption, and the hazards of diabetes, without ever seeming to notice that his diatribes affected me the way scissors affect party balloons. For decades, I felt guilty for not enjoying our time together, for feeling invisible around him because he didn’t show interest in me or my life. I had to remind myself that he loved me—because I knew he did—but that he was limited in his ability to express it.

Once, he joined me and Ian, my five-year-old nephew, at a hockey game. During intermission, Ian reached over to give my father a hug. Startled, he jerked away. Ian looked hurt and confused, in the raw way that children expose their feelings before they’re taught to hide them. My eyes filled with tears. I realized then how unsafe the world must have felt to my father if the touch of his own grandson caused him to recoil.

As he aged, I knew we didn’t have much time left together, so I continued to hide emotionally, to try to protect myself from his disinterest. I crammed myself into the tiniest package I could fit in. Even while he was alive, I mourned the absence of a father who could see me, and I tried to feel grateful for the one I had.

The last time I saw my dad was over Thanksgiving, two months before his death. I’d recently left my job to pursue a career as a psychotherapist and leadership coach, but I hadn’t shared the news with him. Here was a man who was acutely aware of every catastrophe that could befall mankind, and frequently rattled them off like a waiter reciting the evening’s dinner specials. I could only imagine what he’d think about me leaving behind a steady paycheck.

I thought about not telling him. It wouldn’t be hard. He rarely asked about my life. But it didn’t feel right to withhold it. By then, I had my footing. I had a healthy financial safety net, I’d carefully tracked and reduced my expenses, and I’d secured a high-quality healthcare plan—all things he’d taught me. So I did something I’d rarely done in our interactions: I spoke up. Then, I braced myself for what I thought would come next.

“Good for you,” he said. “Now you won’t have to work for anyone else ever again. I hated working for other people. Being your own boss means you don’t have to put up with other people’s crap.”

I felt the tension in my body ease. I’d been dreading that conversation for months. Now, I count it among our best.

The next day, as I got ready to head home, my father said something in typical pessimistic fashion that still stays with me for its prescience: “Give me a hug. I may never see you again.” I did, and closed the front door.

The next time I walked through it, three months later, no one was there to greet me.

I spent three hours that day going through my father’s belongings. I discovered my parents’ divorce decree, their wedding album warped and faded—and a souvenir keychain with a photo of my mom and dad smiling, his arm draped around her shoulder.

But none of these items evoked the strongest expression of the grief in my heart. That came instead from a recent purchase from CVS I found on his desk: a Valentine’s Day card, still waiting to be signed. Inside were the words, Daughter, do you have any idea how proud I am of you?

I sat on his bed, wrapped in the brown and orange Afghan blanket his older sister had crocheted for him decades earlier, and sobbed. It wasn’t because I’d never gotten cards from him with loving words. I had, and I knew he’d been proud of me, but it was crushing that as an adult, I’d never felt the warmth or tenderness he’d shown me as a child. Now, I knew I never would.

When my sadness subsided, I collected myself and the mementos I chose to take back to New York. I was ready to accept that my father would always be a mystery to me, both in life and in death.

A few days later, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. There would be no opportunity to come together with loved ones and mourn. I’d be shut off from the world, except for receiving supportive messages from family and friends. One in particular was a salve for my aching heart:

May your Dad feel the love you have for him in a way he never could before, and may you feel all the love he had especially for you but wasn’t capable of giving.

Although I’d never have the kind of relationship with my father I’d yearned for while he was alive, I realized in that moment I could have something closer to it, even if he was gone. Maybe, I thought to myself, that’s enough.